The village of Alakhpura, in the rural area of Bhiwani district, bears all the true colours of Haryana. The peaceful village with green fields and sweet breeze, rising up to the chirping of birds lies amidst natural surroundings. But what it does not bear is the typical skewed sex ratio of a Haryana village. Instead, Alakhpura has an incredible and heartwarming tale to tell.
As we get into the village and pass through the big field next to the only government school there, we find groups of young girls kicking Football either before their school hours or after that. The wind of change that started in 2002, led to the development of Alakhpura Fotball Club (AFC) for Girls that shot into limelight in 2009 when they won the U-14 and U-17 titles to become the state champions.
The founder of this story is a physical education teacher, Gordhan Dass, who was then the teacher of the boys in the government school. Dass, a qualified Kabaddi coach, often made the boys play Kabaddi while the girls watched from the sidelines. “One day the girls approached me and said that they also wanted to play Kabaddi. But instead I decided to give the girls a football that was lying around in the school premises. These girls simply kicked the football around for fun,” recollected Gordhan Dass who has now been transferred to a school in nearby Barsi.
But before Dass left, he built a solid foundation of Football among the girls. Initially, there was little support from the villagers who represented the archetypal Indian rural outlook. Still, 40-50 young girls of a distant Haryana village took their call. They continued their game and for two years they practiced hard, going against the wave. Gordhan Dass developed their technique, helped in the development of their physical stature and initiated a sense of self-esteem in them.
Gradually the waves turned and the villagers came in support. Here also lies the contribution of Dass. He went to the households with his own daughter who also played Football and made them understand that there would be no harm in letting their daughters to play the game. “I don’t know how I made them understand but might be my daughter’s reference was the turning point. They trusted me and allowed me to continue coaching their girls,” Dass added.
The villagers who are mostly farmers and daily wage earners came forward to contribute for the formation of a Football unit. Sanjay Kumar, the Sarpanch of the village remembers, “There was only one ground beside our school for the girls to play. We requested the government but they didn’t help us. So we all came together and dried a nearby pond by filling it with sand. We tried to create a ground for the girls to practice.”
Alakhpura has now become famous for producing national-level players. Poonam Sharma represented India in the under-19 AFC Championship qualifiers in Vietnam in 2016 and then again in AFC Women’s Asian Club qualifiers in North Korea in 2017. The daughter of a simple villager who grew up along with her three sisters, often found her father lamenting for being the parent of four girl children. But time has changed for both Poonam and her family; it is Football that has changed their life. Poonam not only supported her family financially through scholarships and prize money but even perfectly balanced her academics by pursuing her graduation.
“There is a lot of talent among the village girls. Almost all houses have a footballer,” Sonika Bijarnia excitedly revealed. Herself being a footballer and a certified coach from Haryana, Bijarnia is into government job who was transferred to Alakhpura in 2014. It almost coincided with Dass’ exit and she was handed over the coaching responsibility of AFC. Under Bijarnia, the girls of Alakhpura further honed their skills and started winning national-level tournaments. They won the U-17 Subroto Cup in 2014. In 2015, they finished as runners-up but managed to win it back in 2016.
The girls who started with stitched footballs and bricks for goal posts, did get noticed nationally. And it was also a time when the local government too could not turn their deaf ears to Alakhpura’s plea. The sanction of government fund helped the girls to get proper gears and jerseys. Even the bouldered and pitted ground turned into a well-maintained grass turf for the bravehearts to play.
But the event that has entirely changed the face of Football in Alakhpura is the commendable performance of the girls’ team in the first Indian Women’s League (IWL) , initiated by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) in 2017. The team won the regional qualifiers in Haryana to be one of the 10 teams to qualify for the second round of the IWL.
The team led by 19-year old Sanju Yadav, had one of their most memorable performances when they defeated Aizwal FC 6-2 in their group stage. It was a talking point in the tournament that also led to nearly two hundred people from Alakhpura to make a trip from Haryana to Delhi to watch their team play in the semifinal against the well-established Manipur’s Eastern Sporting Union (ESU).
Many of the girls who grew up hearing about Bala Devi and Oinam Bembem Devi, got to play against their idols with Bembem Devi leading the ESU team. “Playing against the likes of Bembem Devi was a huge learning experience for them as they understood how to wisely run, position themselves and also to defend against a much better unit,” said Sonika Bijarnia.
Sanju who scored the only goal in that semi-final match has been playing for AFC for the last 8 years. Her performance against Bangladesh in February 2016, when she scored in the 74th minute as India won 5-1, caught the attention of the authorities. The AIFF felicitated her with the Emerging Player of the Year Award in 2016. The daughter of a farm labourer, Sanju not only dreamt big but made it true. Football has helped her to earn around 2 lakh rupees scholarship per year with which her family have constructed a two-bedroom house. “My parents have never discouraged me from playing. At my age, most girls usually get married, but they have never asked me to do so. Football is everything for me and it has helped me to get a secure job in the Railways. In the coming years, I want to play more for India and win trophies,” Sanju Yadav proudly announced.
Thus, Football has won them trophies, scholarships and jobs. The government has even sanctioned a new ground for them whose work is soon to be completed. So Alakhpura, lying in one of the corners of India, has set an example. An example that is sure to be followed for gender equality and women’s empowerment through sports.